Ride the Lightning

If you’re just reading this for the fun bit of the story (or if you want to avoid hearing too much beta about the route) skip ahead to “Going down.”

May 3, 2014

A plan falls into place.
A Mountaineers Crag field trip was happening in Tieton. Jarred was signed up as a student for Sunday, and suggested that I join him during his free Saturday to do some other climbing just for fun. He & I would drive out together, and I’d drive back alone Saturday night while he got a ride with Ben & Andrea at the end of Sunday. But what exactly should we climb out there? Having never been to Tieton before, and lacking the guidebook for the area, I turned to mountainproject.com. There’s a pie-chart of types of climbing with a sliver of color that supercharged my curiosity and desire. 131 rock routes, and 1 alpine route. What exactly do they mean by an alpine route in an area that’s mostly single-pitch cragging?? I had to find out. The answer is Ride the Lightning, a 7-pitch route with a mix of bolts and trad placements, 5.9 at the hardest, with most pitches being 5.8. There’s no way I could resist. There’s a fantastic route description & topo by the first ascensionist here: http://www.cascadeimages.com/cr/tieton/rtl/rtl.htm. It’s on Goose Egg Mountain, which is a mountain in the sense that Tiger Mountain is a mountain, not like Mt Stuart or anything. I’d probably have to lead every pitch since Jarred is not quiet yet leading trad, but I was okay with that. I believe there’s other big multipitch routes in Tieton, but RTL is all mountainproject.com lists at the moment.

I knew this route would be pushing my abilities a bit. After more than a year of being comfortable leading at-most 5.7 routes on trad gear, I had just begun to believe in myself as a 5.8 trad leader within the last month, after ticking off both Party In Your Pants and Crossing The Threshold back at Vantage, amongst some shorter routes. A couple of factors gave me confidence though: (1) The first ascent was in 2001, so that 5.9 rating is probably on a more sane scale than some 1950’s Fred Beckey first ascent. (2) Jarred had just bought twin-ropes, making full 60m rappels a possibility, and all the belays promised to be bolted, so in theory it would be easy give up and go back the way we came at any point if it proved too challenging. In fact, I’d rather intentionally climb only the first 6 pitches and rappel them rather than deal with the loose 7th pitch and the fourth class gully downclimb described by the guide. I really hate fourth class. (3) The 5.9 pitch wasn’t until the 5th pitch, so even if it was unclimbable for me, we could still feel like we made a solid accomplishment by climbing four challenging pitches.

Gearing up.

  • Two 60m Petzl Salsa 8.2mm ropes, orange & brown, used as twin-ropes.
  • 6 sport quickdraws
  • 10 alpine draws
  • 3 double runners
  • Black Diamond C4s #0.3 through #4, with doubles of #1, #2, & #3
  • set of stoppers
  • Crack gloves. (Singing Rock rubber ones for me, tape gloves for Jarred. Our hands would have been very bloody without these.)
  • Helmets. (As always, but especially here because occasionally a hold would flake off and fly away.)
  • Walkie-talkies, which were unnecessary because we were always in shouting distance on the way up, but they crapped out during the long rappels where they actually would have helped.
  • small backpack carried by Jarred with each of our sandwiches & water (REI Flash 18 pack)
  • a light rain shell (Jarred) and a light wind-breaker (me), which was meant as an emergency layer, but we ended up wearing them all day since you climb into an area of higher winds, making it chillier than it was on the ground

I know that’s a lot of draws, but we used every last one of them, I wouldn’t bring any less. I probably could have done without the stoppers, I only placed a single one all day (BD stopper #10, the silver one, for the first piece on pitch 3, where there’s no risk of zippering.) For the cams, I probably didn’t need anything smaller than the #0.75 after all, unless I wanted to use a #0.4 cam instead of the #10 stopper on pitch 3. Doubles of the #1, #2, & #3 were a good call. It’s not really necessary, but a third #1 cam (red) would have allowed me to overprotect the dihedral in pitch 2. The big silver #4 was only placed once (in the off-width in pitch 5,) and it was totally worth carrying it the whole day.

The twin-rope setup was new to both of us, but it was straight forward and worked out well. We both brought a Reverso 4, which gripped the skinny rope just enough with it’s breaking grooves, but since it was just-enough, we were keen to always use belay gloves, and maintain good autoblock habits when rappelling. Those ropes are also rated as half-ropes, but I didn’t want to add the complication of moving separate strands through the belay device at different rates. I intentionally brought the Reverso instead of my beloved Mammut Smart Alpine, because the Smart says it’s only meant for ropes 8.9mm and wider. Someday I’ll buy the other Smart model that’s specced for skinnier ropes so I have both options.

The Approach.
I picked up Jarred at his apartment in Seattle at 4am. We didn’t rush much, we made a stop for gas & gas-station food, another bathroom stop, and a stop very near Tieton to say “Hi” when we spotted Ben & Andrea’s car at a campsite off Hwy 12. They were helping teach at the Mountaineers Crag field trip both Saturday & Sunday, and were getting ready to head to the Royal Columns.  I ran into my friend Doug there too.  After hanging out for a bit, Jarred & I continued on our way and eventually parked at the pull-off clearly described here http://www.cascadeimages.com/cr/tieton/rtl/rtl.htm at 8am. We put on harnesses, gear, and sunscreen at the car, and did the 15 minute approach hike in tennis shoes while carrying our ropes & rock shoes. The weather called for temps just below 70°, sunny, and a 10% chance of rain. Given the south-facing aspect of our route and the fact that we were in Eastern Washington, I had expected to get completely baked, so I had worked during the entire drive to drink a whopping 3.5 liters of water by this point so I’d be okay carrying a single liter of water on the actual climb. (That day I peed from a semi-hanging belay, and later while on lead from a ledge above my last clip, both for the first time in my life. Don’t worry, I kept it off the route!) By 9am we were finally tied in, checked out, and ready for me to get off the ground.

Going up.
I started up the first pitch at 9am. Even though it’s reachable by some easy 3rd class terrain then one friction move, I didn’t like how high off the deck that first bolt was. I think the first ascensionists did a stellar job putting together an amazing route in Ride the Lightning, and I understand the desire to not over-protect the hell out of things with too many bolts, but I do think a bolt before that first friction move would be a responsible safety addition given that the leader has 30 or 40 feet of 3rd class terrain to tumble down if they don’t get that first move right. Anyway, the rest of the pitch is fun, with small but plentiful crimps for hands and tiny-but-good nubs for rock shoes to stick to. It’s stuff that you can keep moving up slowly but surely, and I’d say the 5.8+ rating is about right. Since that first pitch is entirely bolted, I made Jarred carry all the heavier cams so that I’d get to warm up my lead-head without the full rack weight on my harness. It’s a solid full rope length too, with the chains not quite 60 meters above the ground. It’s a lot windier up here on the wall than it was down amongst the trees, so even though it felt like a jacket-free day before climbing, I needed to put my windbreaker on to keep from shivering while belaying, and I kept it on the rest of the day.

The 2nd pitch starts out very much like more of the first pitch, climbing the face and feeling pretty good about it. Eventually it gets over to that big dihedral that’s the hallmark of the route, and the climbing there is really interesting! The crack eats up red & yellow cams and provides a number of awesome hand jams while you stem between the two faces. I reached the roof, and traversed under the roof by continuing to get solid hand-jams in the crack at the back of the roof. There’s a pair of chains below the left edge of the roof, thus ending the 2nd pitch.

The 3rd pitch goes up the corner around left of the roof, then turns right out-of-sight onto the first comfortable-to-stand-on ledge in a while. It turns out this is the end of the pitch, it’s surprisingly short compared to the first two we just did. I couldn’t figure out the mixed-pro anchor that the guide described, but the rap-chains that are there worked really well as a belay anchor. After Jarred was up on the ledge too, we extended the lengths of our rope tie-ins to the anchor so we could sit around on the ledge and take a lunch break without disconnecting from the rope. By this time it was around 12:45pm, which indicated we had been moving a bit slowly, but that was expected since the pitches were long and the climbing moves so close to our skill limits.

The 4th pitch starts out really easy, up a few bolts on small face holds that you’re very used to by now on this route. After the last bolt you have to make a step around an edge and into another corner. I found that step to be quite challenging on lead, even though a fall there probably wouldn’t have been that bad. I somehow managed to pull through it, with some colorful vocals. After that step the next belay anchor is easily reached. This is the first belay anchor we’ve reached that had just bolts, no chains. Some crispy bleached-white webbing indicated someone had rapped from here in the past, as we planned to do, but not before trying the 5th pitch!

The 5th pitch is described as having a scary runout to the first bolt. Once I got to actually see the terrain from the 4th pitch belay anchor, I thought it didn’t look that bad, and I wanted to give it a try. Here’s another place where I think one more bolt would be a responsible addition to the climb. An added bolt 10 feet above the belay anchor would at least prevent a fall from being factor-2. Since there were three bolts at the belay, I clipped one of them as my first piece, and gained some modicum of comfort knowing I was now looking at a factor-1.9 fall. With careful balance, I was able to get that distant bolt without falling, and had no shame about pulling on the draw while I clipped the rope. One more bolt, and then I was faced with a tiny overhang (the crux that makes the darn thing a 5.9) followed by an off-width crack. I tried and backed off a bunch of times. I finally reached up and plugged in a #2 yellow cam, grabbed the cam sling, and French-freed my way up over that overhang. I guess I’m still not a 5.9 trad leader 🙂 After that, I found myself with my left side wedged into the off-width crack. I badly wanted to get more pro in it, but I had hung all of medium to large cams from my left gear loop. I wiggled like a worm in that crack for a while, barely balancing & hanging on, and somehow managed to retrieve a necessary cam from my left side. After that, I made good progress up the off-width. Yellows, blues, and one silver cam where handy up this section, and then you start getting some bolts to follow again. It’s a long pitch, but it continues in a straight line, and eventually you get a pair of bolts (again no chains) to your left as a belay anchor.

After bringing Jarred up to the top of this 5th pitch, it was 2:45pm. I felt great about everything we had accomplished, and figured it was about time to turn around to make sure we could rappel the entire 610 feet of vertical we had just gained before getting close to the dinner hour. The 6th pitch didn’t sound that interesting compared to everything else we’d climbed so far, and I had never intended the climb the 7th pitch anyway since it was described as an awful & dangerous hanging pile of loose boulders. Here at the top of pitch 5 was a great place to call it day and turn around.

Going down.
There’s a diagram of the route on this page, it might help you follow what happens next: http://www.cascadeimages.com/cr/tieton/rtl/rtl.htm

At the chainless 5th pitch belay bolts, Jarred provided a rappel ring, and I provided 10ft of 7mm cord, and with a few fancy knots we had perfectly SERENE rap anchor hanging from those two bolts. We threaded through a rope end, then tied the ropes together with my preferred flemish-bend with double-fisherman’s backup knots. It’s a mighty burly way to connect two ropes, which I feel better about than the alternative Euro-Death-Knot, even one with over a foot of tails. I’d be especially uneasy about the EDK in these brand new super-slippery and skinny ropes. We stacked the rope for a saddle-bag rappel, but that proved to be a waste of time since the slippery rope was quick to fall out of my saddlebags. I rapped first, making sure to traverse climber’s-right so I’d hit the belay bolts at the top of the 4th pitch. Along this rappel, on two occasions I clipped an alpine draw to a bolt so the ropes would continue to be held in the direction I had been angling so far. That would prevent me from penduluming too far left if I slipped, and I would tie the bottoms of the rope to the next anchor so Jarred could retrieve those draws without having major pendulum concerns himself. Just before reaching the 4th pitch belay bolts, I passed the middle-markers on the twin ropes. Knowing that the 4th pitch was only 50 feet, I was sure I could skip it and make it to the chains at the top of pitch #3. I did so, got off the rappel, and though it was nearly impossible to yell back and forth with Jarred at that point, managed to explain the situation and tell him he could safely rappel now. (The radios had crapped out, even though their batteries weren’t dead, and we had successfully tested them earlier in the day. Weird.) Jarred paused his rappel by the 4th pitch belay bolts, and told me that during his rappel he saw the ropes above him fall into that off-width crack just above the small overhang. I told him don’t worry about it, keep coming down to me and get off the rappel. (In hind sight, I still can’t think of anything safe for him to do to fix this without first finishing his rappel.)

While we were both attached via PA (personal anchor) to the chains atop the 3rd pitch, we began pulling the orange end of the rope. It had a lot of resistance, but as we pulled, we could see our effort translated into the brown rope moving upward, and it eventually went out of sight. Shortly afterward, our pulls on the orange rope stopped making progress. We could see it’s middle-mark above us, we’d pull together, then let go and watched that middle mark travel right back up to the same spot it had been hanging at before, indicating our pulls were doing nothing but stretching the rope. We tried wrapping the rope around our feet and standing on it. We attached prusiks to it, clipped our belay loops to it, and bounced our full combined body weights on the rope. No progress. At that point, the worst thing I could imagine happened. It started raining.

Let me reiterate our situation when it started raining. It’s 4pm. We were hanging by our PA’s from a pair of chains 395 feet above the ground. It had been windy and a tad chillier all day than we expected, so we both were already wearing our emergency layers. Jarred’s was at least a rain shell, but mine was just a windbreaker. Getting wet would pose a very real risk of hypothermia. It’s not realistic to carry the weight of more than one emergency layer on a rock climb, and the chance of rain that day was 10%, which really is as low as you could hope for. We needed to get down off that route, right now. We had warm jackets and my car waiting for us not far from the bottom, so if we could at least keep moving down the wall we’d have ways of warming back up and be just fine. The only sane way down was to rappel, but nearly all of our rope was above us, out of reach, and not responding to our pulls. We could be stranded & immobile here for hours, slowly having our body heat sapped away by rain. I got legitimately scared at this point.

My mind raced with problem-solving attempts. What resources did we have to change our situation? I thought about building a 3-to-1 pulley system, and Jarred suggested other ways of increasing our pull on the rope, but I didn’t really believe this would be any more effective than the pulling we had already done, so I didn’t want to waste time on it. We had our cell phones, but there was no signal. In the bottom of the pack I made Jarred carry was my DeLorme InReach (which is like a Spot beacon, only better because it lets you type & send short text messages via satellite.) We could push the SOS button on that, but I’d be so intensely embarrassed about having needed official SAR help I was unwilling to cross that bridge yet. Since the InReach lets you send free-form text messages to anyone, we could text Ben & Andrea! Since they were nearby and had all the necessary equipment to reach us, having their help plus Loni and the rest of the Crag class would be quite the calvary to call in, probably mounting a more effective rescue for our needs than an official SAR response! Still, it’s far better to solve your own problems, especially if you can do so safely. They were probably outside of cell phone signal, like us. Even if they got our message, if it kept raining the rock would eventually get too slippery for them to climb to us anyway. We had one more resource: The roughly 60 feet of the orange half-rope we had successfully pulled down before the rope got stuck.

God took pity on us, and the rain stopped before it ever was more than just a sprinkle. Neither us nor the rock was really wet. I am so incredibly thankful for this. It had only sprayed us enough to create some fear. Still, I was afraid it would start again at any moment. I was going to make damn sure I got our rope back before that happened. I hastily grabbed some quickdraws and cams from Jarred, who still was still carrying everything from cleaning the 5th pitch. I tied into the end of that single orange half-rope, and had Jarred tie it to the chains and put me on belay. I slapped a prusik onto the orange rope on the untrustworthy side, and clipped my PA to that prusik. I re-led the 5th pitch, protecting it exactly as I had done before, but knowing that if I took a leader-fall it would be on a single half-rope strand rather than a rope system fully rated for leader-falls. I made sure a leader-fall didn’t happen by continuing to push the prusik higher on the untrustworthy strand. I also used that prusik as an extra hand-hold at times, greatly assisting with my balance on the harder moves so I didn’t waste time trying to free-climb them. I reached the belay bolts at the top of the 4th pitch. The off-width crack with the stuck ropes was within sight, but I was nearly out of rope to lead with, so I stopped and set up a belay.

I told Jarred to get ready to climb, and I put both strands of orange rope through my Reverso. Since he had a big U-shaped section of orange rope instead of a free end, he couldn’t do a rewoven figure-8 tie in, so I had him do a figure-8 on a bight to a locker on his belay loop. Looking back I suppose a bowline on a bight would have worked too, but I knew Jarred knew the figure-8 better, and I was in a hurry. As he reached that crux step-around move, he warned me that he’d need to hang on the rope to get through, which was no problem given the solid top-rope he was on. Instead he pulled through the move successfully, and happily exclaimed “I didn’t weight the rope!” With perfect timing after that his footing slipped and he fell, and the humor of it broke the tension a little. Shortly afterward he reached the anchor, put me on belay instead, and we now had over 100 feet of free orange rope for me to keep leading on, more than enough to reach the nearby off-width.

I led up the two bolts to the small overhang and off-width. I could see the rope wedged not in the off-width exactly, but in a small horizontal flake on it’s right side. It was not my bulky knot that had gotten stuck, I could see that hanging freely farther above. The two rope strands were crossed on top of each other, like when you cross your index and middle fingers for luck. The more we had pulled on orange, the more it had wedged brown into place. I didn’t have to go over the little overhang, I just had to switch our direction of pull from the right side of the crack to the left side of the crack, and I was able to yank the ropes free. I then gave them a flip so they landed outside of the off-width entirely. Awesome. Our ropes are free! Now, how do I get down?

I’m on lead, above the 2nd bolt. Both the orange and brown ends of the rope hanging from our top rappel anchor are within reach, but the brown rope ends before it would reach the anchor Jarred is at. We go with the first plan that comes to mind: Jarred keeps me on belay, and I rappel a short distance until I’m below that 2nd bolt, but careful not to go too far since there’s no stopper at the end of brown (we took out the stopper earlier when we first tried to pull it.) While on rappel, I replaced the quickdraw on that bolt with the oldest single carabiner currently on my harness. Then, I had Jarred “take,” and hold my weight. I got off rappel, and he lowered me back to him, which fortunately wasn’t far because I’m committing the faux-pas of lowering off a single bolt. I clipped into the anchor, and together we pulled the rope, which much to our relief comes down to us completely.

I produced a rap ring and a 10’ piece of water-knotted webbing, and got to work creating my cheap-yet-completely-SERENE rap anchor. Haste makes waste, and I forgot to tie one of the knots that would have made it fully redundant. Rather than undo it and fix it, I want to get on with the descent right away before the rain gets a chance to come back, so I make it redundant by sloppily adding a dyneema runner and carabiner, taping the carabiner gate closed so it now counts as a locker. It looked kinda dumb since it was unnecessarily wasteful with gear, but it was SERENE! I rappel first, going from these 4th pitch anchors all the way down to the anchors at the top of the 2nd pitch. I am happy to report that are no major cracks anywhere near the rope during this rappel. Jarred joins me at the 2nd pitch anchors, and we pull the rope. It moves a little, and then… resistance. No F’ing way.

Jarred & I are having none of this. We both yank hard together. At first the rope doesn’t move, then suddenly it pops and lunges at us, and we chuckle with relief like crazy people. I am pretty sure my bulky flemish bend got a little hung up pulling over an edge until we pulled hard enough for it to bump up and over, and a fresh bit of sheath abrasion at the knot supported that theory. Happily using chains now, we thread the rope, and both rap to the 1st pitch anchors. The rock is entirely face now, no crack to get stuck in, and I’m sure we both want to feel relieved, but we’re holding our breath until we’re really back on the ground. The rope pulls just fine, we set up the last rappel, do the rappel, pull the rope one last time (remembering to take out a stopper-knot just before it left the ground.) Finally, we are both on the ground, and so is the rope. It’s 6:30pm. That’s 9h30m after we first left the ground. We are very happy to be here, and very happy to get our feet out of rock shoes and back in sneakers. The rain never came back, but I’m still glad we didn’t dilly-dally at any point after it first threatened us.

Ending the day.
Back at the car, I don’t put my gear away in an organized fashion like I usually do. I throw down a reusable shopping bag and tell Jarred to throw anything with my signature green & white tape in there, while I unload my harness in the same manner. We drive back to where we had seen Ben & Andrea that morning, pretty much exactly 12 hours ago. They had been back from the Royal Columns a while now, and had just begun to wonder where we were. I joined them and some other Mountaineers hanging out in camp just long enough for me to tell our story and have one can of cheap beer with them. Then, we moved Jarred’s gear from my car to theirs, and I hit the road back to Seattle so I can spend Sunday with my girlfriend.

Huge kudos to Jarred for keeping a level head through all of this, thinking resourcefully, and and being an excellent partner at both the normal climbing, and the bit of self-rescue we had to pull off near the end. I want Jarred around anytime the going gets tough! Also, a sincere big thanks to the first ascensionists who put up this route, I had a great time climbing it! On a five star system, I’d give it 4 stars. (The only downsides being some occasional loose rock, and my desire for an extra safety bolt here and there.)

My pictures:  https://www.dropbox.com/sh/xuowki6f4kwh5yd/rJ5KPLcvnh
Jarred’s pictures:  http://1drv.ms/1mwzHuU

P.S.  An old cashmere sweater, a mylar blanket, and an emergency rain poncho have been permanently added to what I put in the little backpack the follower carries on my multipitch climbs.

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One thought on “Ride the Lightning

  1. Jarred suggested maybe he should have recognized the crack was coming up before rappelling past it, and then try to stay off to the side. I think that’s a nice idea, but even if he had, I think it would have only had a very marginal effect on the probability that the rope would get stuck or not. That crack is so in line with that rappel, odds are good the rope would have fallen back in anyway.

    Since second-guessing is human nature, I also wonder if my snap-decision to rappel beyond the 4th pitch belay bolts and continue down to the 3rd pitch chains might have increased our odds of having a problem with that crack. I was trying to save us time by doing one less rappel setup, and if that crack hadn’t been there it would have indeed saved us time. Had I ended the rappel at the 4th pitch belay bolts instead, I suppose the rope might still have gotten stuck in that crack, and we might still have been unable to free it while attached to the anchor there, but we would have had an easier time communicating, better visibility as to what our problem was, and one less lead to do in order to get up there and fix it.

    Now that we’re back on the ground and past it all without any bad consequences, I’m glad we had that experience. Since it did stay dry, it was great practice for me to put into use rope-freeing techniques I had only read about before. Mainly I’m glad it never really rained on us. Having that sprinkle stop as quickly as it started really was the key between us having an adventure with a solvable problem that ends well, and a horrible very-real-possibility-of-death situation. I do not like that it was luck, something completely out of my control, that made that difference, I am not okay with that.

    The more and more I think about “What should I have done differently?” the more I really cannot say that anything we did on the rock was a mistake. Getting the rope stuck while pulling it just plain happens now and then, there’s nothing we could or should have done differently that would have given us an iron-clad guarantee of avoiding that problem. The only thing I can figure out is that this is a lesson underscoring the importance of the “10 Essentials,” or more importantly having them on your person instead of just nearby. Of course I did have all 10 essentials a few hundred feet away at the bottom of the wall, between the pack there and my car, I just never imagined that a few hundred feet away would become totally inaccessible. Jarred at least had brought a rain shell & a mylar blanket up the wall with him, I think his preparation was about right. The fact that I had just a windbreaker, no shelter or extra insulation beyond that was a mistake, even though I was *confident* it wasn’t going to rain on us that day. I have to remember I could always be wrong, no matter how sure I am in my predictions, and provide some appropriate insurance. (Similar to how I’m already the beacon/probe/shovel hardliner even in the mildest of avalanche danger.) On Sunday afternoon I gathered up an old cashmere sweater, a mylar blanket, and an emergency rain poncho. Together the three total about 1 pound, and I’m going to always include them on any rock climb that where we’re bringing a small backpack anyway.

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